To succeed as a director, don’t wait for direction

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Todd, the director for a 25-person business unit, was frustrated that he wasn’t getting clear direction from his boss. The vice president he reported to kept telling Todd that he wasn’t being strategic enough. Yet Todd wasn’t clear on what being strategic even meant.

If you choose to progress in your career by moving up the leadership ranks, you may share Todd’s frustration. Each promotion will bring new responsibilities and challenges. Some promotions require small adjustments and some are significant turning points that require considerable changes in your approach, outlook, and actions. Three key turning points for leaders are:

1. Becoming a supervisor or manager for the first time.

2. Transitioning from managing a team to directing a function or unit.

3. Transitioning to the executive level.

Linda Hill’s book “Becoming a Manager” is a terrific resource for anyone about to make the first transition. Scott Eblin’s “The Next Level” specifically addresses the third. This article focuses on the second transition — taking on a director role.

Many very successful managers struggle when they first make the move to director. One of the biggest challenges they face is the lack of clear direction from company executives. This is because managers are typically responsible for executing plans. For the most part, expectations and measures are communicated from above. The manager’s responsibility becomes organizing the team and the work to accomplish specific objectives.

All of this changes at the director level. According to Tom Turney, founder of T Squared Leadership, “At some point, employees who move up the ladder to management have to shift from execution to creating the plan and being strategic.” What does it mean to be strategic? Interviews with executives reveal that they want their directors to:

Understand the organization’s overall priorities.

Proactively suggest what their team should focus on in order to move the whole organization forward.

Doing so successfully means being able to read between the lines and understand what is important without waiting to be told what to do.

As a director, you need to spend time with senior executives to ensure that you understand what success means to them. Remember though, that at this level, you aren’t likely to get specific goals and metrics. Listen for priorities, for key organization-wide metrics, and major barriers or obstacles. Absorb what you hear. Discuss it with your managers. Then come back to the executives with specific plans about what your group or function will do and how you will do it. And be prepared to make adjustments based on input from your executive team at this point.

Todd followed the process outlined above and came up with five strategic goals for his department. He met with his boss and she approved of his list and let him know that two of the five were the most imperative from her perspective. Todd was then able to keep his department focused on what was most vitally important to their joint success.

If you are in a director-level role, stop waiting for direction from above and start setting the direction yourself. Figuring out how to connect your department’s work to the overall company strategy will make you invaluable to your organization.

Mack is a Woodland Park-based consultant, speaker and author specializing in leading and communicating change. She can be reached at